The temperature is rising … and so is the death toll
Severe heatwaves are silent killers, causing more deaths since the 1890s than all of Australia's bushfires, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and severe storms combined.
Over the past decade, severe heatwaves around Australia have resulted in deaths and an increased number of hospital admissions for heart attack, stroke, respiratory illness, diabetes and kidney disease.
Older people, young children, and those with chronic health conditions are at high risk, but so are outdoor workers and our emergency responders.
In January 2009, Melbourne suffered three consecutive days of above 43 degrees, while elsewhere in Victoria it came within a whisker of 49.
There were 980 heat-related deaths during this time, which was around 60% more than would normally occur at that time of year.
Morgues were over capacity and bodies had to be stored in refrigerated trucks.
A few years earlier in 2004, Brisbane experienced a prolonged heatwave with temperatures reaching up to 42 degrees in February, which increased overall deaths by 23%.
The threats to our lives and livelihoods from extreme weather isn't limited to heatwaves, but extends to more frequent and more severe storms and floods, more intense and 'out of season' bushfires, and widespread and prolonged drought.
Of course, we’re used to extreme weather in Australia, so much so that it is embedded in our cultural identity.
From ancient Indigenous understandings of complex seasons and use of fire to manage landscapes, to Dorothea McKeller’s 1908 poem My Country, to Gang Gajang’s 1985 anthem Sounds of Then (This is Australia), we sure like to talk about the weather.
But climate change is making these events more and more deadly, and we can’t afford to be complacent.
So what do we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from extreme heat and other events?
We can check in with our friends, family and neighbours on extreme heat days and we can strive to make our health services more resilient and responsive, but this doesn't deal with the cause.
Without rapid effective action to reduce carbon emissions we're locking ourselves into a future of worsening, out of control extremes.
Ultimately, to protect Australians from worsening extreme weather events and to do our fair share in the global effort to tackle climate change, we have to cut our greenhouse gas pollution levels quickly and deeply.
Reducing our carbon pollution means a healthier Australia, now and in the future, with fewer deaths, fewer ambulance call-outs, fewer trips to the hospital, and reduced costs to the health system.
The only thing standing in the way of Australia tackling climate change is political will.
Professor Hilary Bambrick is a member of the Climate Council and heads the School of Public Health and Social Work at QUT.
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